A Mark of True Disciples
Series: The Gospel of John
In this story many believed in Jesus, but instead of celebrating that right away, Jesus clarifies a mark of true disciples: Abiding in His Word.
I’ve mentioned in sermons before that I’m a fan of New Years’ Resolutions. I was talking to my barber about them recently and he said, “I don’t need New Years’ Resolutions. When I want to make a change in my life, I just do it.” I thought, “Well, you’re a better man than I.” That sense of a fresh start is just helpful I think for developing new habits. But now we’re 3 months into the year, and how’s that going? The novelty has definitely worn off on some of mine, and I can already feel the slippage back into old habits. With some of these things, that’s frustrating, while with others, it’s no big deal. Sometimes you try new things and they just don’t stick; whatever. But what if there are things you really want to stick? How do you keep going? In the passage at which we’re looking today, many people have just believed in Jesus, and Jesus now turns to address those who have just believed in Him. He’s the new thing they’re trying, but He wants to make sure He’s not just a new year’s resolution that only lasts a few months. Many of you here today have professed faith in Jesus, but do you recognize that it’s a risk that that profession would be like a New Year’s Resolution in your life, something that lasts only while the excitement of something new is still there, only to give way to the next new fad? And following Jesus is not the kind of new thing you want to just try for a bit and then drop. So abide in Jesus’ Word, because it’s the mark of true disciples, it’s the way to true freedom, it’s the devil who opposes it, and it’s God who speaks it.
It’s the mark of true disciples
Now recall that Jesus has faced a lot of opposition from His own people throughout the course of His ministry, but now where our story picks up, many had believed in Him. How would you expect Jesus to respond? Finally, some fruit, some converts. I mean if this happened in a church today we’d be trying to get this group baptized ASAP and then up front telling their story to others, putting together their testimonies on video, and promoting them via social media. But back to the famous question: What would Jesus do? Well, we don’t have to speculate. Here’s what Jesus did. He said to them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” No quick baptism service, no quick assurance, no party for these new converts. Instead, there’s a warning: It’s great that you’ve professed faith in me, but that’s not the mark of true discipleship. The mark of true discipleship is continuing with me. I’m reminded of a story missionary Mack Stiles recounts in his book titled Evangelism, of how a pastor friend of his typically says this to someone who professes faith in Christ for the first time: “Brother, from what you have told me, I agree with you: You have become a Christian. Let’s pray.” Then after they pray, the pastor says, “You understand the mark of true conversion is not a prayer, but a long-term walk with Jesus. So, even though I believe you have come to Christ, we’ll see what happens as time goes on.”
That’s what Jesus is saying here. The mark of a true disciple is not an initial excitement and profession of faith in Jesus’ word, which it seems these disciples had. It’s abiding in Jesus’ Word. Already in the Gospel of John Jesus had experience with this. In John 6, when Jesus told His disciples they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood, calling them to trust Him as a crucified Savior, John tells us many of them turned back and no longer walked with Him. They were disciples as far as their outward profession goes, but Jesus makes clear here that they were not true disciples, because the mark of a true disciple is abiding in His word. Abide is not a word we use very often; it’s roughly synonymous with remain. The idea, then, is that true disciples not only hear the word once and receive it with joy; rather, they continue hearing it, believing it, and letting it shape their lives, through all the hardships that follow.
There can be all sorts of reasons to get excited about an initial profession of faith in Jesus, many of which are good and glorious, but some of which arise from our flesh. There is the love of novelty; it’s just exciting to try something new, and a fresh start is always alluring. The grass still seems greener. There is the praise of others: Typically if someone professes faith in Christ for the first time, there will be a lot of Christians there to cheer them on and give them attention. And that’s exactly what Christians should do, but sometimes it can be excessive and unwise, and it can serve to dilute the motives of those converting. There may be a desire for relief from the consequences of sin: A man gets caught cheating on his wife, feels terrible, and the way he can feel better is to profess faith in Christ and resolve never to do it again. Other times people will make vows: “God, if you get me through this test, I’ll follow you.” These sorts of things may be part of the story of true converts, but they may also mask false conversion. The proof, one way or the other, will come when the initial buzz wears off. It no longer feels new, and in fact to keep believing the same thing in the face of other new ideas feels hard. The grass now starts to look greener elsewhere. This inner ring that I’ve now entered by my profession of faith no longer seems as cool now that I’m in it. People don’t seem to be giving me as much attention as before; in fact, some of them don’t seem to love me very well at all. The dust has settled from the big sin that led me here, etc. That’s when it will become clear: Did you actually put your faith in Jesus and His Word, which will still be the same as the day you professed to believe it, or was this just a phase?
We should learn from this that false conversions, false disciples, are a real thing, and we must not pretend they aren’t so we can feel better. Souls are at stake. Do you see the wisdom and love of Christ in His response? He demonstrates wisdom in not giving assurance too quickly to those who may have impure motives and end up turning from Him when His sayings get hard, just as the disciples in John 6 did. He’s not swayed by the allure of visible success. He shows a supernatural level of wisdom as the text goes on, suggesting that He knows in the case of these so-called believers, their faith is not sincere: He calls them slaves of sin and children of the devil, says His word has no place in them, that they are not of God, and more. But He also demonstrates love in that He points this out to them. He has promised that whoever comes to Him, He will never cast out; how then can He seemingly cast out these people who seem to have come to Him? Because He knows they haven’t actually come to Him. It’s not loving someone to pretend they’ve come to Christ when they haven’t. That’s condemning them. What’s loving is to help them see what it really means to come Christ, so that they will!
Because here’s Jesus’ promise to those who truly come to Him and who prove that by abiding in His Word: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
It’s the way to true freedom
The truth can be known, and Jesus says the way to know it is by abiding in His Word. Not only can the truth be known, but this is not a truth you need to avoid or be afraid of: It sets you free. Maybe when you hear that promise you feel something similar to what the original audience felt. They say in verse 33 that they are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. So how can Jesus tell them they will become free? Many today also feel very free apart from Jesus. They don’t “have to” give their money away, confine their sexual activity to marriage, love their enemies, spend time in worship of God, etc. So they’re free, right? Maybe you’re a Christian and it looks that way to you even; I know there are times when it looks that way to me.
But Jesus says no, verse 34: “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” Apart from true conversion to Him, Jesus says we are all slaves to sin. If you’re so free, Jesus is saying, why do you feel like you have to keep your money and spend it on yourself or those who make you happy, only giving enough of it away to convince yourself that you’re not greedy? Why do you feel like you have to have sex with more than one partner? Why do you feel like you have to avoid and cut out people who don’t love you? Why do you feel like you have to say hurtful words to people you know you’ll regret moments later? Why do you hate when good things happen to other people, even when you know how ugly that is? Why can you so quickly talk about what others should or should not be doing, but then find in yourself desires for the very things you say they should not be doing? Jesus says it’s because apart from faith in Him, we aren’t just good people who sometimes do bad things: We’re slaves of sin. It’s inside us, such that it is all we want.
And here’s the problem with that, verse 35: The slave does not remain in the house forever. The Jews were identified as the people of God before the coming of Christ as offspring of Abraham. But Abraham had two children: One born of a slave woman, the other of a free woman, and the son of the slave woman did not remain in his house forever. Slaves are not sons legally. So also the Jews, though they were in the house when Christ came, would not remain in it forever if they remained slaves to their sin. Yet here is the offer, verse 36: The Son is here, and if He sets you free, you will be free indeed! You don’t have to remain slaves of sin! Abide in my word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. In other words, here’s what happens in true conversion: Though you are born in slavery to sin, the moment you believe in Jesus, the Son, He sets you free, and then as you abide in His Word, you grow in your knowledge of the truth, and you progressively get more and more free from the power of sin in your life.
Do you see what that means if you are in Christ today? The Son has set you free, and if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed! You don’t have to obey sin any longer. Those sinful desires will still pop up, but now you can say no to them! And we even learn from this text how you can get more and more free from them: Abide in Jesus’ Word, know the truth, and it’s the truth that will set you free. Christians often get stuck in sin patterns because they’re trying to simply will or guilt their way out of them. I struggle with anxiety, which then keeps me from rejoicing, and that is sin: We’re commanded to rejoice in the Lord always and not be anxious about anything. When I’m stuck in that, I’m not present with my family, so I’m not loving them, and I tend to become harsh and impatient with everyone. I’ve tried various ways of dealing with that: Try to think about all the good things I do have instead of focusing on what I don’t have, try to just remember the command to rejoice always and not be anxious, try to tell myself that I need to be joyful if I’m going to do my job as a pastor well.
And if you’ve tried things like that, you know they don’t set you free. When I’m really experiencing freedom, it’s because I’m believing the truth of Jesus’ Word. So one of the big sources of anxiety for me and one of the times I struggle most to rejoice is when I worry that I might be making a wrong decision. But as I’ve abided in Jesus’ Word, here’s something I’ve learned: 1 Peter 2:5 teaches that for those who have been accepted in Christ, all of what we do for God is acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In other words, I don’t have to get it all right for God to still be pleased, because the righteousness by which I am righteous in God’s sight is not my own, but Jesus’, imputed to me. Now I have something to rejoice in, even when I can’t figure it all out. The truth sets me free.
I’m not saying that happens quickly or that once you identify the truth it fixes everything; we have to abide in Jesus’ Word, but as we do, over time, Jesus promises that our knowledge of the truth will grow, and the truth will set us free. As you continue to listen to the preaching of His Word in church week in and week out, as you continue to meditate on it personally, as you talk about it with others, as you benefit from podcasts, lectures, sermons, and books that further bring out its meaning, in humble dependence on the Holy Spirit, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. So abide in that word. Leaving it may feel like freedom, but it’s actually a trip back into slavery. If you feel stuck on some sin, don’t give up the battle. Abide in the word. And if you can’t see how the truth of Jesus’ word applies to your struggle, ask for help. Grab a pastor or another member you trust, tell them your struggle, and ask them to help you see the truth. Abide in Jesus’ Word, and you will know the truth, and that truth will set you free.
That’s the glorious promise Jesus makes to these Jews who had “believed” in Him, and yet as His dialogue with them continues, they seem to be more like opponents of Jesus. So He exposes the true roots of their opposition: The devil himself. Another reason to abide in Jesus’ word is because it’s the devil who opposes it.
It’s the devil who opposes it
He begins alluding to this in verse 38. He says He speaks what He has heard from His Father, but they do what they have heard from their father. Again, they appeal to Abraham as their father in response, and in verse 41 they add that God is their father! Jesus questions them on both counts. They don’t listen to the one speaking the truth to them like Abraham did, and they don’t love Jesus, the one God sent. If they don’t love the one from God who they can see, how can they claim to love God whom they cannot see? If they aren’t true children of Abraham because they don’t act like him, if they aren’t true children of God because they don’t love the one He sent, whose children are they? Who are they acting like? Verse 44: You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your fathers’ desires. There are two specific desires of the devil that Jesus mentions here: Murder and lying. The devil’s desire from the beginning was to murder: He sought to bring death to humanity by tempting Adam and Even to sin against God, and he succeeded. When Adam and Eve had children, they had one child who was of the devil, Cain, and the other who was of God, Abel, and Cain murdered Abel. He was also a liar from the beginning, and in that sense the father of all lies. God told Adam and Eve that in the day they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. The devil came to them in the form of the serpent and said, “You will not surely die.” That was a lie.
If you are to abide in Jesus’ Word, you cannot be ignorant of Satan’s devices. One of his devices that we see here is he gets you angry and murderous toward those who are trying to tell you the truth of Jesus’ Word. Did you catch Jesus saying that throughout the passage? Verse 37: “You seek to kill me because my word finds no place in you.” Verse 40: “But now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.” The devil has always been an opponent of the truth, and so he seeks to kill those who speak it. So if you find yourself getting angry with those who are trying to tell you the truth, recognize where that is coming from. Often when people are drifting from Jesus’ word, Christians who love them will try to tell them truth about what Jesus’ word teaches and how their life is beginning to look inconsistent with that. If someone ever loves you enough to do that, don’t get angry with them because they didn’t do it perfectly. That’s a device of the devil. Instead, abide in Jesus’ word, and trust that the truth, hard as it may be for you to hear in that moment, will set you free.
Then not only does the devil attack those who speak the truth by tempting us to murderous desires toward them; he also attacks the truth itself with lies. And he doesn’t flash a neon sign when he’s doing this: “Hey, I’m going to lie to you now.” He’s crafty. If we think back to the first lie, he didn’t even start with, “You will not surely die.” He started with, “Did God really say?” The first lie, in a sense, is that God’s Word cannot be understood. So here we see Jesus exposing that for what it is in verse 43: “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word.” All throughout the Gospel of John we see people misunderstanding what Jesus says, and Jesus says the reason for that is not that what He is saying is just so confusing and opaque that of course it will give rise to many different interpretations. Instead, He says they do not understand because they don’t like what He’s saying. If you notice that clear passages of Scripture suddenly seem unclear to you because the truth of what they are saying means you would have to believe something you don’t want to believe, do something you don’t want to do, or stop doing something you do want to do, that’s a device of the devil. Don’t give into it.
But then once he’s gotten us to question the clarity of Scripture, he will tempt us to believe lies in direct contradiction to it. In our gut we’re already feeling like we kinda don’t like something in Scripture and we hope it’s not true, so then when the devil presents the lie, we’re ready to swallow the hook. So here in verse 48 we see these professed disciples say He is a Samaritan and has a demon, both of which are lies. Today the devil tries to lead Christians astray by tempting them to think that miracles never happened, that you can follow Jesus without the church, that the Bible’s commands are bad for at least some people if not all, that because some Christians often do horrible things, the whole thing is a sham, and so forth. And here’s the beauty, the gift of having Jesus’ word recorded in writing and printed for us today. You can go check these lies against it. Like literally, open the Bible, get into the actual words, and see, “Do these things I feel drawn to believe contradict this?” If they do, guess who they’re from? Don’t believe the devil’s lies. Abide in Jesus’ Word, finally because it’s God who speaks it.
It’s God who speaks it
So when they accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and having a demon, they go back and forth a bit more until they feel like they know he has a demon, because he’s claiming to be greater than Abraham! So although Jesus makes clear that He’s not seeking His own glory, He’s not out to prove He’s greater than Abraham, He also makes clear that He has to tell the truth, unlike them. So He says in verse 58, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Here Jesus claims to have existed before Abraham, even though Abraham lived over a thousand years before Jesus was born. But He doesn’t even just say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” Instead, He says, “Before Abraham was, I am.” Now you expect an object, right? “Before Abraham was, I am the bread of life, or the light of the world” as we’ve already seen in John. But here Jesus simply identifies Himself as, “I am.” As Yohance explained last week, that was the unique name of God in the Old Testament. Because He is pure being, from whom everything else exists, there is nothing greater than God to which He can then compare and name Himself. His name must ultimately and essentially be, “I AM,” and it is His name alone. I am Mike, I am not simply I am, because I have parents who named me. God simply is. That’s why before Abraham was, He is. And now Jesus claims that is what is true of Him.
And this is the ultimate reason to abide in Jesus’ Word. It’s God’s Word. He’s God. So your response to Him is your response to God, and as Jesus says, He is judge. There are all kinds of reasons people stop abiding in Jesus’ Word: It’s hard, sin looks appealing, they’re lonely, the church failed them, life isn’t turning out the way they planned. Those things are real, and they matter, but do you see how utterly foolish it is to stop abiding in Jesus’ Word because of them? None of them change the fact that before Abraham was, Jesus is, and if that’s true, why would anything seem like a good reason to no longer abide in His Word? True disciples are disciples because they believe this, not because their parents were disciples, or because it looks like a nice way to solve some problems in their lives, or because it brings them attention. This is the point on which you must make up your mind. Is Jesus telling the truth here, or is He the liar? There’s no middle option in this passage. You’re a child of God or of the devil; you’re of God or you aren’t. And if Jesus claimed to be God and was not, He’s not a good guy you can pick up some things from: He’s a liar, and the enemy of all that is right and true. If He’s not God, don’t wait to forsake Him; do it today. And direct all your forces against Him.
But if He is God, what good reason could you ever have to not abide in His Word? There is no good reason, but there is a bad reason: Because you don’t want God. That’s what this response of these false disciples reveals. So when Jesus gets real clear that God is who He is, what do they do in verse 59? They pick up stones to throw at Him. Can you see yourself in them? Here’s how we know that we really are slaves to sin by nature, that we really do hate God by nature: When God came to us, we killed Him. Here’s how we know we really were under the power of the devil: Though this time Jesus left the temple because His hour had not yet come, eventually we would utter all kinds of lies against Him and murder Him on a cross. But do you know what He did in response? When we lied against Him, He didn’t lie in return. When we murdered Him, He didn’t fight back. Instead, He prayed for our forgiveness, and when He rose from the dead, He came to us preaching peace. On the cross He suffered the wage of sin so that we could be set free from our sins. That’s the truth of His Word, and the one who knows that truth, who abides in it, will be free indeed. So believe it today, abide in it, and it will set you free.